10 Dec 2014

Seeds of change?

Plant science is probably one of the least appreciated fields of life sciences, and yet, perhaps no other research area has produced as many technological advances beneficial for society. In an open letter released last month, 21 out of the 27 most cited plant scientists in Europe pledged decision makers to back plant research, which they feel is currently threatened by lack of funding and global public and political opposition to genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

“In comparison for instance with biomedicine and fields with technical applications, plant science is not well funded, and that’s particularly true when it comes to funding from Horizon 2020”, says Stefan Jansson of Umea University (Sweden), who coordinated the letter.

Credit: © chaiyon021 - Fotolia.com

In the open letter the scientists recall the fundamental role of curiosity-driven plant research for a sustainable society and to “deepen our understanding of nature”, and they warn decision makers that without their support—financial and political—the Horizon2020 goals to “tackle societal challenges” and “to ensure Europe produces world-class science” will not be met.  

Besides asking for funding to be maintained or, if possible, increased, they demand that plant scientists must be allowed to perform field experiments with GM plant varieties, and that Europe must “promptly” authorise new GM crops that have been found safe by the European Food Safe Authority (EFSA).

They claim that in most European countries, “permits to perform field experiments with transgenic plants are blocked, not on scientific but on political grounds”. And the few field experiments that do go ahead are often vandalised, wasting years of work and public funding.  To make matters worse, the scientists say in the letter, the ongoing de facto ban on approvals for new GM plant varieties in Europe has not only been damaging for applied plant science, but it has also increased the competitive advantage of agrochemical corporation giants like Monsanto; publicly funded scientists and small companies just don’t have the means to go through expensive, and sometimes decade-long, approval procedures.

“Every approval of a [GM plant] variety is enormously expensive, complicated and unpredictable, so no one ever tries nowadays”, says Jansson.

GMOs in Europe
This opposition to GMOs can safely be called epidemic. Lobbying by environmentalists and widespread popular resistance to GMOs has held back the use of GM plants in agriculture globally, but only in Europe the situation seems hopeless. A single GM plant is currently commercially cultivated in the EU— the MON810 maze produced by Monsanto that carries resistance to European corn borer, and which is cultivated in Spain, Portugal, Czech Republic, Romania and Slovakia. A de facto ban on GMO approvals has kept GM plants off the fields and out of our fridges for over 10 years. Environmental activists often associate GM crops with the ‘big bad wolf’ agrochemical companies, but in fact Monsanto and Syngenta have pulled out from the European market all together, so effectively the only people affected by this ban are farmers and plant scientists.

(March agains Monsanto, Vancouver, Canada, 2013. Credit: wikipedia)

“European agriculture is lagging behind when it comes to development, yields and so on. So every year the rest of the world is improving more than we’re doing here”, Jansson says “Unfortunately it’s because we’re not allowed to use the right technologies”.

The extreme position of France
This anti-GMO fever has changed the face of plant research in some European countries. France is an extreme example. It’s a national joke in France to say that all political parties, from far left to far right, agree on one thing: they’re religiously against GMOs. 

The radical resistance to GMOs in France began in the late 1990s amidst a growing anti-GMO mood that was quickly spreading worldwide. Ironically, back in those days France was at the forefront of the plant biotechnology field, and large consortium initiatives such as GENIUS and GISBiotechnologiesVertes (formerly known as Génoplante) received generous public funding. In fact, the first ever field experiment with a GM plant variety was performed in France in 1986, and for a decade, France ranked second only to the United States in the number of these experiments with GM crops, and they triggered no public protests. However, in just a few years the number of field trials in France plunged from over a thousand (in 1998) to only 48 (in 2004), and over half of these were eventually destroyed by activists. So what happened?

As the mad-cow disease and beef hormones scandals shocked the world in the mid 1990s, people began to become very sensitive about what was in their food. And exactly around this time, the Monsanto’s Roundup Ready soybeans controversy exploded. Not surprisingly, this promising new GM technology didn’t go down that well with the public. As Greenpeace promptly launched its first campaign against GMOs in 1996, a very influential French environmental activist named José Bové started a strong anti-GMO movement that conquered the French public opinion: from Parisian “bobos”, to journalists and even scientists, everyone seemed to hate GMOs, and politicians just followed the trend. 

The French Environmental Minister at the time, Corinne Lepage, began introducing laws to ban cultivation of GM plant varieties, and all subsequent governments, regardless of their political views, continued this anti-GMO policy. Activists that destroyed GM crops and research labs were prosecuted but got away with light sentences or amnesties. For instance, in 1999 protesters led by Bové completely destroyed a greenhouse for experiments with GM plants at CIRAD, a research centre for agriculture and sustained development in Montpellier. After a long and highly publicised trial, Bové was prosecuted to 6-months in jail, but the then president Jacques Chirac eventually “pardoned” four months of that sentence.

“They [the activists] are protected by the justice, they’re not really condemned. The laws were relaxed by the courts. It’s easier for these persons to get a meeting with the Minister of Research than for scientists,” says Georges Pelletier, president of the Scientific Committee of the French Association of Plant Biotechnology and former head of the Department of Plant Physiology of INRA (French National Institute for Agricultural Research).

Because of this strong public aversion to GMOs, and of the heavy administrative burden and expensive greenhouses required for testing GM varieties for agriculture, plant scientists in France have dropped their arms and simply “lost hope”, says Pelletier. Now, they use GM technologies only for basic research, and then adopt classical breeding methods to obtain the desired plant variety, or otherwise they perform field experiments with GM plants abroad.

“Nobody is growing GM crops outside anymore, after a while you understand the message”, says Brigitte Courtois, a researcher at CIRAD who is trying to obtain rice plants resistant to flooding by classical breeding, and who got some of her plants destroyed by Bové. “My main worry is that one day we’ll not be able to do any breeding because of this narrow vision.”

CIRAD and INRA, the largest public agricultural research institutions in France, have reduced the use of GM technologies in applied plant research to nearly zero. Once a leading country in plant biotechnology, France plant scientists in public institutions are now forced to work almost exclusively on fundamental research.

“The pressure on the scientists continues […] so in a way these people are also more or less destroying the science. They put pressure on the scientists hoping they will change their research”, Pelletier says.

Communication breakdown
(Credit: Acrylic Artist/Morguefile.com)
Since Monsanto’s Roundup Ready soybean scandal, activists don’t seem to be able to distinguish the agro-industry sharks from applied plant research, or in fact any plant research, so public and political resistance to plant biotechnology and innovation persists, and plant scientists suffer the collateral damage.

“I have stopped talking about [my work] with my friends. Even educated friends with the same background in agronomy, they all feel that there are other options, like organic farming […]. For me this is associated with the fact that people have no contact with agriculture anymore, they’re urban people who know nothing about how to grow a plant”, says Courtois.

But in other countries, there are some signs that if the public does listen to the researchers, they are more positive about the use of GM technology to tackle societal problems. At Rothamsted Research (UK), one of the world’s oldest agricultural research institutions, extensive information about their field experiments with GMOs is available online, and researchers make an effort to engage with the public to explain their research. The results start to show: while a couple of years ago protesters attacked (but not destroyed) a GM field trial at Rothamsted, the ongoing field experiment with Camina plants that produce omega-3 oils hasn’t been at all targeted.

“When we discuss our work with the public the general feedback is that the people are interested in what we are doing and more positive towards the use of GM technology in trying to address research questions and provide potential solutions to agriculture and food production challenges”, said Rothamsted’s researchers in a statement to Lab Times.

It is difficult though for plant scientists to get the message across to the public; if they’re not allowed to cultivate GM plants, how can they show their benefits for agriculture and society? And if the public doesn’t see those advantages, the lobbyists continue to put pressure on politicians to ban GMOs. It’s a vicious circle.

“All the new environment-friendly varieties that actually have been produced over the years, if they’re just in the drawers of the scientists and never been used in practical agriculture, then its much harder to convince society about the value of what we’re doing,” says Jansson.

Politics vs science
The date for the release of the open letter, at the end of October, was chosen carefully. The new European Commissioner for Public Heath and Food Safety, Vytenis Andriukaitis, took office on the 1st of November, and just a few days later the European Parliament voted on a Commission’s proposal to give power to individual member states (MS) to ban GMOs in their territory.

This proposal was initially meant to be a compromise to unblock the over 10-year-long gridlock on GMO authorisations. Currently, any GMO approval in the European Union (EU) first needs to go through a thorough science-based evaluation by EFSA, and then the Commission drafts a proposal to either ban or authorise the new GMO according to EFSA’s recommendation. The proposal finally goes to the Standing Commission—made of politicians representing EU governments and public authorities—and they have the final say. If nine or more countries are against the Commission’s proposal, the approval is blocked. This has happened systematically for over a decade.

“When it comes to pharmaceutical industries, for instance, it’s not the politicians that make the evaluations whether the drug is dangerous or has side-effects or not, it’s the scientific body that does that”, says Jansson.

Anti-GMO countries like France have stalled the system by using spurious scientific arguments to ban GMO approvals, and applicants are either forced to spend years on end doing more and more safety tests, or they have to go into long and expensive legal battles to overturn the Commission’s decision (or lack of thereof). Inevitably, companies trying to commercialise their GM plant variety in Europe give up, while publicly funded researchers don’t even try.

This de facto ban has worked well for anti-GMO countries so far, but ironically, because of the countless scientific studies they’ve imposed, a huge amount of scientific evidence has accumulated showing that GMOs don’t pose any risk for human health or the environment. Anti-GMO countries are running out of arguments.

As a result, in an unprecedented move, thirteen countries formally asked the Commission to give MS the “flexibility” to ban EU-authorised GMO crops in their territory. Even though this would in theory go against the single market principle, in June 2014 the Commission approved a compromise proposal granting that request, but preventing MS from banning EU-authorised crops based on health or environmental grounds. This was a painful and much-negotiated compromise that could have worked. However, amendments introduced to the proposal by lobbyists will effectively give countries legal grounds to ban GMOs on reasons such as “environmental policy, town and country planning, land use, agricultural policy, public policy, or possible socio-economic impacts, GMO contamination of other products, persistent scientific uncertainty, development of pesticide resistance amongst weeds and pests, invasiveness, the persistence of a GMO variety in the environment or a lack of data on the potential negative impacts of a variety”, MEPs say in a press release. So pretty much any reason will do.

The Commission’s amended proposal was approved by the European Parliament in November. The decision is not final yet, but the future for GMOs in Europe seems bleak.

“The amendments that give MS the ability to challenge cultivation on grounds of safety are worrying because they undermine the risk assessment performed by EFSA” Rothamsted researchers voice their concern in a statement to Lab Times. “Potentially, it will also make it harder for MS who do not want to opt-out to justify to their consumers when neighbouring MS are using safety as a reason to ban”.

The worry is that pro-GMO countries won’t be able to cultivate EU-authorised GM crops in their country because activists can now say “If that country banned this crop on safety grounds, it must mean it’s unsafe”, and this will put even more pressure on politicians to ban GMOs. EFSA’s science-based evaluation will lose weight on GMO approvals; the power will lie merely on politicians, and science will have little impact on future decisions to authorise or ban GM crops in Europe.

Seeds for the future
The open letter has so far not received any response from the European Commissioner, but it got extensive media coverage and excellent feedback from the research community, except in France, where researchers seem to prefer to remain quiet.

“The letter was addressed to two French scientists amongst the best in Europe and they didn’t want to sign. One of them because of the question of GMOs and application was inserted in the letter, so he didn’t want to sign. The other never replied”, reveals Pelletier.

So what’s the future for plant science in Europe?

Jansson says “It won’t disappear but it won’t flourish either. Maybe, in 10 years, there will be fewer plant scientists and they will be a little less useful for society.”

Bonneuil C. & C. Marris (2007). Disentrenching Experiment: The Construction of GM--Crop Field Trials As a Social Problem, Science, Technology , 33 (2) 201-229. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0162243907311263

This article was published in Lab Times on the 9-12-2014. You can read it here.

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